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Peer Workshops and Grades

posted: 5.10.13 by archived

In my last post, I wondered about the possibility of peer-workshops being productive without the initial motivation of students to want to work to improve their writing…because they care deeply about what they are writing about. I shared stories of my own experiences with peer-workshops at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) in the early 1990s, in courses where I was given the freedom and flexibility to write about topics of interest to me. (It’s worth noting that I probably participated in workshops in classes where the papers I was writing were of less interest, but I don’t seem to remember those workshops as well, if at all).

The process of writing my last blog post led me to question whether peer workshops could succeed if students didn’t feel some level of intrinsic motivation to work at their writing (as opposed to the more common grade-based motivation). By the time I finished, I was worried that I was coming to a conclusion that intrinsic motivation likely mattered–matters–a lot to the potential success of peer workshops.

But grades matter a good deal, too, and they are a strong motivator for many, if not most, students.

In the first-year writing (FYW) classes I teach today, I accept that grades are what motivate my students to write, but try to create assignments that students will also find engaging and motivating as well. The essays I ask students to write are not like those that I wrote in Freshman English when I was a student at UNH. My assignments these days are born out of the writing-about-writing (WAW) approach, pioneered by Doug Downs and Elizabeth Wardle. Unlike the papers I wrote–papers that could be on just about any topic that I happened to find interesting–the papers my students write are highly structured and sequenced affairs, often in conversation or dialogue with concepts or frameworks that have emerged from course readings.

And while there are opportunities for students to “own” the content of their writing in my FYW courses (e.g., “we’re going to write a summary of an academic article that reports on writing research, but you get to pick the article you summarize” or “we’re going to conduct a rhetorical analysis of a writing experience you have, but you get to choose the experience you want to analyze”), it is definitely not the case that students in my courses can write about anything they want. While I miss that other type of teaching and writing, that wide-open and personal kind that I experienced as a student and enjoyed a great deal, I think that the assignments I give help students learn about writing itself and more closely approximate the types of academic writing assignments that they are likely to encounter in other academic courses, where they will rarely be given the opportunity to write about whatever they want. In sum, my assignments are one way I attempt to honor the belief that FYW is supposed to function as preparation for further academic writing (as problematic as I know that position may be).

Interestingly, despite the fact that the papers my students write for me these days aren’t of the free-wheeling, choose-your-own-adventure variety, I find that peer workshops in my classes are still productive.Because I pair peer-workshops with so-called “fish bowl” activities, where the whole class looks at one paper together with me, students often report at the end of the term that in my class they were able to answer that age-old question that has plagued all students since the dawn of time: What does the professor want? (read: how can I get a good grade?) As long as students are asking this question, and as long as I can make the case and provide the evidence that peer workshops improve both writing and course grades, I believe that students will feel motivated to contribute.

As I wind down this post and reflect on my most recent experiences with peer workshops in The Paperless Writing Class, I am feeling less worried than I was a week or two ago about the viability of this practice. At bottom, students seek to know what professors want and professors seek to communicate to students their expectations in as clear a manner as possible. Well-structured peer workshops can help clarify these expectations, create a feeling of community in the classroom, and work to show students that we are doing everything we can to help them succeed. Ideally, peer workshops can also help students ascertain whether or not they understand a given assignment, and help them to think more about audience and purpose in writing. In many cases, knowing that participating in peer workshops is likely to improve their grades may be motivation enough for students to take this practice seriously. At this point in my career, with certain classes, including required ones like FYW, that’s good enough for me.

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Categories: Michael Michaud
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ePortfolio Day: the preview

posted: 5.6.13 by archived

As the end of the semester nears, I’ve been reminding my students every class that Portfolio Day is coming, trying to spark a last-minute flurry of revision before the day of reckoning. I disguise the tinge of dread I feel myself for the day that will be, for me, at the same time exhausting, exhilarating, and nerve-wracking (in much the same way as I used to get nervous bringing my kids to the dentist). Things will be a little different this semester, though, because I won’t be scrambling that morning to print out last-minute essays and gather up all the assignments and rosters required; this semester, for the first time, some of us will be submitting not stacks of manila folders but rather electronic portfolios.

The adjective we always use to describe our Portfolio Assessment Project is “homegrown,” and because of this one of its key characteristics has always been its flexibility:

The culture of the department grants faculty a high degree of academic freedom, so the portfolio project is a far cry from an exit exam that asks students to respond to a common prompt for ease of assessment. Instead, in our project, faculty members submit their own individually crafted assignments, which we read along with student work. The tiny window this gives me into my colleagues’ classes is one of my favorite parts of the project, though it invariably fills with a hunger for more discussion of assignment and course design. Over time my own assignments have changed as a result of the project, and I have seen similar development in my colleagues’ assignments.

Over time, the requirements for portfolio pieces have also evolved. Because our course description for the first semester of comp includes basic research competency, one of the four portfolio pieces must require research and demonstrate students’ ability to find, evaluate, integrate, and synthesize sources, but this assignment may take a variety of forms. But when I started the project ten years ago, a piece of timed writing was also required, which is now no longer mandatory; a few instructors still choose to include it both in the belief of the importance of timed writing as a skill and as a way to authenticate the portfolios by giving a reliable sense of student voice. In place of timed writing, though, many of us have started to use a cover letter as a way to promote student reflection.

Membership in the committee is also a fluid thing, as faculty enter and leave the project every semester or two. That participation in the project is totally voluntary has been key to its endurance (over fifteen years, I think—I’ve been participating for ten now), and the arrival of new participants encourages us to reflect on our procedures and to articulate our sense of the value of the project.  Committee membership includes both adjunct and full-time faculty, and it’s one lonely island where the distinctions between the two identities are blurred, to everyone’s benefit.

We’ve been considering as a group (and I’ve been worrying as an individual) how this latest flexible initiative of allowing both paper and electronic portfolios will work. A central issue involves just how portfolio readers will access electronic portfolios (there are two readers per portfolio, with a possible third to settle disagreements), with the complicating factor that we’re allowing multiple formats. Several faculty who use the college LMS need to enable access to their protected course spaces; it’s my understanding that our tech support staff will create dummy accounts with username portfolioreader (or something like that) and an easy password. Of course, readers will still need to be able to navigate to find both assignments and student work, so we’ll see how that works.

For many reasons, I’ve abandoned the LMS in favor of course and student blogs, so readers will have open access, but still need to be able to find the essays to read.

What I’m planning to do (I’m the only faculty member on the committee this semester who’s using open-source blogs) is ask students to create a category “portfolio” on their blog and tag the appropriate entries. I made a quick, rough video to demonstrate the process that can be seen here. I should then be able to provide portfolio readers of each of my sections with an emailed Word file that contains a roster, with student names hyperlinked to URLs of the format studentblogname.edublogs.org/category/portfolio/

In that emailed doc I’ll also include links to online versions of my assignments, which I’ll probably also print out for the paper-lovers among our ranks.

In order to make sure students are not adversely affected by any kinks in the process, our committee chair has decreed that this be a no-stakes semester for ePortfolio sections, for which I’m grateful, but I’m still concerned about how the process will work and what differences might arise in assessment. How will the paper vs. screen issues I’ve been talking about with my students all semester translate to the faculty side of the aisle? Will the look and format of Essay-as-Blog-Post disturb colleagues who obsess over type fonts and hanging indents? Will my students’ grammar lapses be more or less evident on screen? I’ve been encouraging my students to exploit the advantages of digital communication, encouraging hyperlinking and the use photos in their essays wherever possible and appropriate, on the theory that tired eyes of readers will welcome some spots of color. We’ll see how it goes, and I’ll report back in my next post.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from any of you who are currently using a portfolio assessment project with details about how your version works (or links if available) and whether and how you’ve made the transition from paper to digital portfolios.

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Categories: Holly Pappas
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Where things go

posted: 5.2.13 by archived

As I’ve been putting my kitchen back together after a major remodel, I’ve been thinking about the process of organizing things. It’s one of my favorite things to do, this sort of thinking about thinking as I draw out the lovely filaments of analogy.

Selecting. As I pulled box after box of utensils, dishes, condiments from the living room back into the middle of the new kitchen floor, my first step was to decide what to throw away: the damaged, the unused, the redundant (crumpled sieve, melamine bowl, sixth pie plate).

Classifying. I couldn’t put things away box by box, but rather I had to spread things out across the kitchen to see what I had. It was a more complex process than I could ever have imagined. I kept reciting to myself what “categories” I had (baking pans, pots, dishes, cups and glasses, spices, oils and vinegars, silverware, cans and boxes of food). I needed to see how much space each category would take and match that to cupboard space, taking into consideration proximity to sink and table and stove. My brain ached with the effort of keeping it all straight; as I tried to fall asleep, I could feel my subconscious trying to map it all out while I dreamed.

Ordering. Once I got each category assigned its own space, the process grew easier as I could focus on one section at a time. For my oft-used utensils, it was a quick thing to grab them up and dump in a canister.

More challenging was my beautiful new spice rack tucked on the inside of a cupboard door. Though I confess that when I was a child I did organize my books alphabetically by author, my organizing aesthetic is no longer alphabetical, so I knew I wouldn’t be following the grocery-store scheme.  The rack has five shelves, so after some consideration I came up with five spice-groups: your herbs (thyme, rosemary, oregano, and so forth); hots (cayenne, chili, curry powder); baking (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger); seeds (caraway, poppy, sesame); and the little-used miscellaneous remainders—placed in that order from most accessible bottom shelf to need-a-stepladder top shelf. I admit I may have gotten a little carried away…

So I’ve been thinking about how much this is like my writing process: moving from chaos to order by gathering up bits and pieces into groups, throwing some things away, moving each group into position, ordering the bits within each group. However, my students often have a hard time with this “chunking” process (aka paragraphs and topic sentences) and with thinking about how best to order the bits within each chunk. Many seem to see writing as a sentence-by-sentence affair, like the bouncing ball in a karaoke machine; it’s this inability to see the big picture, I think, that contributes to the patch-writing phenomenon we see in source-based writing.

I’m thinking perhaps some real-world examples could help my students better understand this, so here’s an idea for a short writing prompt:

Think about how you organize something—clothing, photographs music, school notes, whatever—or if you’re the unorganized type, how you might better organize one of your “collections.” How do the notions of selection, classification, and ordering apply, and what criteria determine how you select, classify, and order? What is the purpose or value of this organizing, both for you and for others?

In comments below, please share your own favorite analogies to help your students (or yourself!) understand some aspect of the writing process.

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Categories: Holly Pappas
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Peer Workshops and the Role of Motivation

posted: 4.29.13 by archived

I don’t know where I read it, but I have this line in my head about peer workshops being the most frequently tried and most quickly abandoned practice by non-writing faculty (faculty in the disciplines). But among those who regularly teach writing, peer workshops are standard fare and, in my experience, seen as one of the joys of teaching writing. There is, perhaps, no other activity that is so taken for granted, so ingrained in the practices of good writing teachers: students need to sit with other students and read their writing. If we know nothing else, we know this.

One benefit of this practice, as I tried to articulate in my last blog post, is the way in which peer workshops expand students’ sense of audience. My own experience with peer workshops as an undergraduate student at the University of New Hampshire in the early 1990s suggests that when students are in the regular habit of sharing their work with one another, they begin to think about audience in ways that go beyond the usual inescapable audience and exigence for class-based writing: the teacher and the grade. They begin to think of their peers while they write, not just their teacher.

When I sat down to write this post, my plan was to share the process by which I facilitate peer workshops in The Paperless Writing Class, but I feel as though I have stumbled into something else, something equally interesting, but vexing. As I consider my own experience in peer workshops, I realize that my thinking about audience changed because I wanted to write for those peers, and because I cared about the topic of my writing. In the example I shared in my last post, my classmates and I were writing essays about topics of our own choosing, not going through the motions of completing an assignment that our professor had given us (like the students in the first-year writing classes I now teach do). There was a motivation to “get it right” in our essays because we cared about our topics and thus cared about the impressions we were making on our peer-readers.

Experience suggests that this is definitely not always the case when it comes to academic writing, particularly the kinds of academic writing students are asked to do in required general education courses. In such situations, the exigence of the grade is often the only one that motivates students to write. If your only motivation is the grade, you’re not likely to sink much time into peer workshop unless your motivation for doing so is, once again, the grade. And if it’s true that successful peer workshops rest upon the foundation of students’ intrinsic motivation to write (a questionable assertion), then what happens when students feel no such intrinsic motivation–when they are just trying to get through a difficult writing assignment that they may or may not understand or particularly care about?

Some students, a minority, will likely be motivated enough by the grade to do their best on the paper and to take the peer workshop seriously (especially if it, too, is graded). But for many students, a paper whose raison d’etre originated outside of themselves–in other words, most papers students write in college classes–may not provide sufficient motivation for careful and thoughtful writing or participation in peer workshop.

Or is this too dark a view? Does the motivation of making-the-grade suffice as a rationale for productive participation in peer workshops? Does participation based on a philosophy of I-will-take-this-workshop-seriously-because-it-is-likely-to-help-me-earn-a-better-grade carry the same sway as I-will-take-this-workshop-seriously-because-I-genuinely-care-about-what-Susan-Brent-and-Adam-think-about-my-work? Regarding the former, do students really believe that having other students read their work can help them earn a better grade? Regarding the latter, if students write for their peers, will that automatically translate into a paper that their professor will evaluate positively?

As this blog post winds down, I’m left with this question: what is the value of peer workshops if students feel little or no motivation for the writing they have produced and which will be discussed during workshop? In my next blog post, I’ll think more about this question and share and write about some examples of student writing that were produced under just these conditions, in one of my own classes. Eventually, I’ll get to describing my current peer workshop practice, but it feels like these other questions need to be sorted through first.

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Categories: Michael Michaud
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A Personal History of Peer Workshops

posted: 4.12.13 by archived

I first experienced peer workshops as an undergraduate student enrolled in Freshman English at the University of New Hampshire in the early 1990s. I don’t remember much about those initial experiences, I’m afraid, but my guess is that I found my first writing workshops both anxiety-producing and fun. I liked to write but had absolutely no experience talking with other students about my writing and was only just beginning to realize that one could think about one’s writing process (and that I apparently had one).

Peer workshops were a staple of undergraduate coursework at UNH—in both literature and writing courses. I have clear and fond memories of the small-group workshops I participated in while taking a course called English 501: Expository Writing with Pam Barksdale (who still teaches at UNH). In my mind’s eye, I can see my class sitting in small groups, exchanging our papers and reading them through on cold winter mornings in the front room in Hamilton Smith Hall. I can remember the social dynamics that built up within our group as we worked together all semester. Susan, an older student, was always enthusiastic and talkative with good things to say and I always looked forward to hearing what she thought of my drafts. Brent was not a strong writer and didn’t seem to be able to operationalize the instructions we were getting from our instructor (he was good at story-telling, but could never answer the “so what” question), but he was a nice guy and he always brought his drafts and commented on mine. Adam was shy and said very little, but he always wrote interesting comments on our drafts–comments that demonstrated that he was taking the work seriously, even though he never said a whole lot. Staying with these students in peer workshop all semester was a risky but ultimately productive practice. My group worked well together but I don’t imagine that all groups got along as well as ours.

All of this was before the internet, so there was no online component to our workshops in those days. Did we print out and exchange papers and read them at home before coming to class or did we read each other’s drafts for the first time in class? Were we to read and comment in writing or did we just read and talk? Did we read our drafts aloud or silently?

I can’t recall the specifics. I can recall that sharing my work regularly with a small group of peers for several months and watching both their drafts and my own evolve was an important part of my writerly education. I was learning to think about the process of writing in new and interesting ways and I was learning to think like a writer, and not just a student who writes for his professor (for a grade).

Writing, I was learning, needed to have meaning—to the writer and to actual readers. I found that I began to think about Susan, Brent and Adam as I worked on my essays. I learned to write for them and for myself—and not just for Pam–and because I cared about what I was trying to say and had to imagine my words in the mouths of my groupmates during peer workshop, I mostly ignored the role of evaluation in the whole process. While it wasn’t possible to forget about grades entirely, reading and discussing my work with Susan, Brent, and Adam in peer workshop and with Pam in conference felt like my most immediate exigencies.

I realize now that I am a product of the “writing process” movement–something that should not be, but probably is, taken for granted. My instructors at UNH likely didn’t experience peer workshops as a standard practice of writing instruction when they were in college. But for students who came of age when I did, such practice, at least at the University of New Hampshire in the early 1990s, was routine. And so we were not only products of the writing process movement, we were also beneficiaries, for I have no doubt that sitting with Susan and Brent and Adam and talking about my writing (and theirs) was an important part of my growth and development as a writer during the college years.

Not all workshops went as well as those in that English 501 class. Not all teachers created a climate where workshops could go as well. Not all students were willing to engage in the process with the level of seriousness that Susan, Brent, Adam and I were. But I never doubted the value of this practice while I was engaged in it and while I have occasionally doubted its value as a teacher of writing, particularly during my initial years in the classroom, I have arrived at a place now where I believe I understand why asking students to engage in peer group workshops is important. In my next blog post, I’ll talk a bit about how I structure peer workshops in the Paperless Writing Class and why I continue to ask students to engage in this activity in the first place.

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Categories: Michael Michaud
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Reconsidering Plagiarism Prevention

posted: 4.5.13 by archived

For me, the issue had been decided six or seven years ago, under the influence of the comp bloggers I was reading at the time, who were for the most part solidly opposed to the use of automated plagiarism-detection software.  Their arguments were convincing: such software raised intellectual property concerns when it added student essays to its database and ethical concerns when it profited from those additions; and even more worrisome, it created a police-state climate in the classroom (for an extensive discussion of the potential resulting damage, see the comments here).

But lately around my campus, now that Turnitin has been integrated into our CMS, I keep hearing from colleagues whose judgments I respect about how valuable they find its services. One lauded how much time its grammar checker saves him in grading, and another pointed to its value in teaching students where their semi-digested paraphrases have slid into “patchwriting” (Rebecca Moore Howard’s term). At a presentation last week, when I explained my preference for course and student blogs over the institutional CMS, a science faculty member asked how I dealt with plagiarism (without the aid of Turnitin) and how much time did it take? (My response, of course, was the laugh all writing teachers give to faculty of other disciplines who dare to complain about time spent grading.)

Is it about saving time (either through automated grammar-checking or plagiarism-detection that cuts out my Google-checking suspicious phrases) or giving students tools for analyzing their own use of sources or catching the criminals? I suppose there’s value to each of these goals. But what I keep going back to are the invaluable results of the Citation Project about how students use source material, which confirm my sense that it’s not the blatant “grab-an-essay” plagiarism that’s so common, but rather the sort of patchwork weaving of bits of source material that’s done by well-meaning but ill-equipped student researchers.

I feel that my primary responsibility to these students is not at the end of their process, to finger the guilty party after the deed is done, but rather at the beginning, with the instruction I provide, the assignments I design, and the ways I can require my students to make their process visible and thus open to my intervention.

So I was thrilled to see this recent post by Rebecca Moore Howard about how the results of the Citation Project have influenced her own teaching of Comp 1. (The post gives a very brief run-down of results of the Project as well as an ambitious list of learning objectives to address its findings.)

Here are some of the much-less-ambitious teaching strategies I’ve been using this semester, not just to reduce plagiarism but more importantly to help students read and respond, integrate and synthesize that reading:

  • Early on in the semester I assigned a half-dozen summaries of short articles. With a course theme of Places and Spaces, I used the New York Times Living Rooms blog and gave my students the freedom to pick within that blog six posts that caught their attention; because the blog contains only about thirty posts, I had the time to read over each article as I responded to the summaries students produced.
  • Our first longer essay was a text-wrestling essay  (I borrow the phrase from UMass-Amherst’s English department). This gives students practice in summarizing a longer article and emphasizes the distinction between summary and response-analysis. Some semesters I allow students to choose from a list of three or four articles; this semester I assigned a short essay from the New Yorker that tied to the subtheme of Domestic Spaces (Brendon Gill’s “More than a House”).
  • As a first assignment that requires students to synthesize multiple source, I assigned a short research report (rather than an argumentative research paper), which students worked on during class time, so that I could circulate through the room and peer over shoulders. Once students settled on five or six relevant and credible sources, I asked them to compile an annotated bibliography, forcing them to consider each source as a whole before engaging in any “quote-mining” they might be tempted to do.
  • In general, having students compile their sources on their blogs allows me to require that they hyperlink all electronic sources—and they’re almost all electronic! I hope that this reduces temptation to copy-and-paste chunks of material; if I suspect students are writing “too close” to their sources, the hyperlinks allow me to easily check student wording against source wording.

Whether you’re a long-time user or a more recent convert, please feel free to weigh in on your reasons for turning to Turnitin. Or if like me you’re a resistant to its appeals, tell us why you haven’t turned and what other strategies you’ve adopted to teach your students ethical use of sources.

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Categories: Holly Pappas
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Writing is a Public Act: Take Two

posted: 3.29.13 by archived

When I wrote my last blog post on my “Writing is A Public Act” policy, I didn’t anticipate that it would be a two-fer, but that’s how it has turned out. In that post, I ended up thinking about how having access to student writing via the LMS and Google Docs is useful to me as a writing teacher in the Paperless Writing Class. What I didn’t articulate is why I think this policy is worthwhile for the students and that’s what I’d like to take up here.

Let me say from the outset that the writing I’m talking about here is not of the personal sort–I’m not looking for students to do a freewrite on a significant relationship in their lives and then insisting that they allow me to share that freewrite with the class. That’s not what I have in mind. I’m talking about the kind of writing students do when they’re working through ideas or asking questions or reacting to something they’ve read or we’ve discussed. Let’s take an example.

One day last spring in a Professional Writing course, I set out a series of tasks for students as we worked our way through Anne Beaufort’s wonderful book Writing in the Real World. The first task: get into small groups, read through your groupmates’ homework responses, and choose one, as a group, that will be shared with the entire class. This gave students the opportunity, before we got into a full-class discussion of the day’s material, to get a quick refresher on the reading and to find out what some of their classmates thought about it.

Once the reading and nomination process was complete, each group was assigned one of Beaufort’s five knowledge domains (discourse community, subject matter, genre, rhetorical, & writing process) and asked to address the following prompts and questions:

      a. Explain the kind of knowledge your domain consists of.
      b. What does this type of knowledge allow a writer to do? Why is it important/useful?
      c. Explain how writers at Beaufort’s research site acquired this kind of knowledge.

Finally, each group was to pose one question about the day’s reading. They were to post all of this writing to a Google Doc: a public document which we would review at the end of class.

So, to recap: the day began with students reading each other’s homework and deciding which student’s work to share with the class. Students then got to work on a series of tasks and read each other’s informal writing as it emerged in response to the prompts and questions I gave them. Finally, they all read and discussed the written work of all their classmates once the Google Doc was complete. Via tasks like these, students are able to read not just each other’s finished work but also each other’s work at the point of utterance, at the point of conception.

I have no evidence at my fingertips to suggest that this practice, in itself, generates new learning and/or ways of seeing/thinking/knowing, but my gut tells me that it does. There’s something about listening to another person as they are trying to shape a thought that is valuable. It’s valuable to the speaker/writer in that you have an immediate audience for the ideas you are trying to work through. It’s valuable to the listener/reader in that you have the opportunity to gain access to another person’s thinking process and to potentially contribute to that process. These are the kinds of activities that professionals, academics or otherwise, engage in all the time but which students may not engage in as frequently and probably rarely engage in in the classroom.

Therein lies a second justification for the all “Writing is A Public Act” policy: it allows for kinds of conversation and learning that might not happen otherwise. Students see that, rather than keep their informal writing private, making such writing public opens up new ways of thinking, seeing, and understanding.

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Categories: Michael Michaud
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Mid-course correction

posted: 3.22.13 by archived

Despite snow in the forecast, it’s spring break here and time for mid-semester evaluations, of both my students and my course/myself. Typically that initiates, for me at least, a period of glumness that can last until end-of-the-semester adrenaline kicks in.  The statistics are grim: about 10% of the students still registered for my courses are not showing up for class and another whopping 40% or more have slipped perhaps irretrievably behind in coursework. For all of my talking and thinking and writing about the excitement of course design, it is again the issue of student persistence that’s occupying my thoughts these days.

Last week a student said to me, as if to explain her failure to turn in the previous two assignments, that none of her other classes required homework. When I asked how this could be, she acknowledged that she did look over the PowerPoint slides her teachers provided just before exams, but that was all of the out-of-class work required to earn her a slot on the Dean’s List. She asked me to predict her final grade in the course, to help with her decision of whether to risk hurting her GPA or to withdraw from my class.  I can’t get her out of my mind. 

It’s not always so easy to tell what the problem is when students disappear or disengage.  This student clearly failed to understand what I expected in a writing course (for whatever reason, including perhaps lack of clarity on my part), but for other students it’s harder to root out the interfering issue(s). As students are working, I circulate through the computer lab, both to look at student progress and to chat. I ask them about how many hours a week they work, repeating a colleague’s recommendation that anything more than 20 hours work makes carrying a full-time course load nearly impossible. Before and after class, I hear about family troubles, depression and anxiety, court dates for child support or other issues not explained. I worry about one student who spends all his time before (and sometimes during) class reading a book clearly for pleasure, but who can’t seem to manage to get anything posted on his blog; as weeks pass and his excuses about computer issues at home dwindle, I’m convinced he has a writer’s block of some sort that he can’t acknowledge. So many of them seem to feel invisible, as if I won’t notice they haven’t turned in any work, and unable or unwilling to speak up, to seek help.

There are so many reasons for students not writing that it’s hard to figure out how to help. In response to concerns about student preparedness as well as political pressures for accountability, students are now required to take a one-credit College Success Seminar. But we teachers need to be talking about this more.  Although colleagues occasionally commiserate about fall-offs in student attendance, the extent of this problem seems veiled as (speaking only for myself) the responsibility I feel to help my students succeed slides to something close to my own shame as they disappear or stop writing.

I’ve tried a few things in the classroom this semester: a lot of low-stakes writing at the beginning of semester to encourage a regular writing practice (using a “mindful writing tool” called small stones, via Hoarded Ordinaries) and a lot of in-class writing to try to help them over the hump of the blank screen. But only a small fraction of students entered into true “small-stone spirit,” and though I devoted a lot of class time to student work, maybe a third of my students failed to produce much actual writing.

I’ve been thinking more generally about where my responsibility lies—how much more should I do to help them succeed, how firmly should I set limits so that they learn through failing. Can I teach persistence explicitly, or do I do that by enforcing the consequences of its absence? Is my flexibility a help or an injury? By allowing nonparticipants to remain in my class, am I trying to “help” the individual at the cost of the climate of the classroom as a whole?

I’m not sure these questions are answerable, but for now I’ve come to a tentative resting point. I try to reconcile the limits of my influence by acknowledging that all I can control is the information with which I can equip students: about my course, about strategies for getting support and completing work, about the quality of the work they do. More immediately, when I return from spring break, it’s time for a serious chat. I need to clarify yet again my expectations about the work required to do well in the class and my distress over how things are going. I need to ask students what is going on, both as a class and individually, to ask them to reflect and self-assess and, most importantly, to formulate a plan to get us all to our destination.

I’d welcome any advice you can give about how to handle the non-writers in a writing class.

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Categories: Holly Pappas
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Writing is a Public Act: Take One

posted: 3.15.13 by archived

Over the past several years, I’ve added a new section to my course syllabus or User’s Manual called “Writing is a Public Act.” In The Paperless Writing Class, all writing is public. As in most writing classes, I ask students to share formal papers in small groups and occasionally I ask individual students to allow me to discuss their writing with the entire class (they can, of course, decline). Nothing revolutionary here.

I also reserve the right to share students’ low-stakes, write-to-learn writing with the class at any point in the semester. This second bit, about sharing informal or write-to-learn writing is, to my way of thinking, the more innovative and perhaps risky practice, so I offer students an “out,” if they want it, by letting them know that if this policy absolutely creates a problem for them they can talk to me about it and we can find a solution. No one seems to care, though. They’re either too busy to give this policy much thought or too accustomed, already, to seeing their words, even their tentative, unpolished words, hanging out there in public, online.

I’m not too surprised that so few students express concern about the fact that their informal writing might be made public. In the early days of WEB 2.0, when I started blogging about my children and wanted to post a photo of someone else’s kid playing with my kid, I would always talk to the other kid’s parents first, just to make sure they were cool with it. These days, it seems that it’s just assumed that photos of your kids are going to show up on someone else’s…blog, Facebook page, Twitter feed, whatever. The same probably goes for writing. There’s that video out there, A Vision of Students Today, in which one student claims that she reads 1281 Facebook Profiles a year. Someone has to write those profiles (to say nothing of the wall posts!). In sum, I suppose the fact that writing is a public act is not something new to most college students today.

However, school is still a place where writing is largely a private act. To write a short response to a prompt one has been given by a teacher is a different activity than to post an update to one’s wall on the activities of the day. The former is about sharing; the latter is about thinking. Outside of composition classrooms, my sense is that very few students are asked to share their thinking-via-writing with one another. Even inside of composition classrooms, where sharing one’s formal writing is fairly standard practice, sharing one’s writing-to-learn writing – writing that is essentially thinking-written-down—probably happens less frequently.

For many of my colleagues, I’ve found, writing is largely a two-way street: the students write, they (the faculty) read and/or grade. But since write-to-learn activities are largely about thinking, when they are kept between just students and teachers, a whole lot of thinking is not being shared. To me, this is a shame, as school is supposed to be about thinking and about sharing thinking. Many students aren’t up for this kind of sharing if it means raising their hand and contributing to a class discussion. How many times have you heard a faculty member complaining that he/she can’t get the students to engage during class discussions, or that they can get some of the students to engage, but its always the same 2-3 students who are putting their hands up? These faculty are not assigning writing as a tool to facilitate thinking or they’re not thinking about creative ways to use the writing they are assigning to facilitate discussion. And since they don’t have access to the writing, don’t have it at the tip of their fingers when they need it, it doesn’t matter anyway.

For me, though, things are different. Because I ask students to post all of their writing online somewhere, usually in the learning-management-system (LMS) or in a Google Doc, I have access to all of my students’ writing all of the time.  I can use it to do things in the classroom – to spur discussion or raise questions, to summarize a reading or share the views of the class on a question or problem related to the running of the class.

So goes my first rationale for the Writing is A Public Act policy: I need access to students’ writing at all times, because I am in the business of encouraging thinking and the discussion of thinking. I can’t (often) do these things (well) without some thinking-written-down to draw on. By going paperless, I’ve found a way to ensure that I always have access to some thinking-written-down when I need it. And I’ve saved a few trees.

Next week: Why the Writing is a Public Act policy is good for students.

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Categories: Michael Michaud
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Introducing research: the active classroom

posted: 3.8.13 by archived

In the past, in classrooms with only an instructor’s computer on a podium, I’ve unrolled my spiel about finding and evaluating sources: on the chalkboard listing the classic criteria of relevance, authority, bias, and currency; with my computer demonstrating strategies to find sources using research databases, online catalog, Amazon, Google and its alternatives; asking students to apply evaluation criteria to the hand-picked sources I offered up.

Determined to reduce my lecture time and with the luxury of laptops for students, I tried another approach this semester. With very little introduction, I challenged students to find the best source they could for a ten-page college-level research paper about how Frank Lloyd Wright remains an influence (or has become irrelevant) in contemporary house design (we’re in the “domestic spaces” section of my places-and-spaces themed comp class; each of my sections had a different housing-related research question). I asked them to post the link (or the information required to find the source, if the source was not available electronically) on a Google Doc I had set up, along with a note about the search strategy they used and their rationale for choosing that particular source. Because I’m using a course blog, it was an easy matter to set the Google Doc to be editable by anyone who had the link and then posting the Google Doc link on our course blog. After class, I locked access so that the document could be viewed but not edited.

I scheduled this activity for the last ten or fifteen minutes of class, so that I would have time to look over results before we talked about assessing sources. Predictably, Google was the search strategy of choice (I think it may even have been the only choice across all four of my sections), and nearly everyone chose websites. I added in a few links of my own, of mixed quality, to introduce issues of timeliness, relevance, and depth of source.

The next class I assigned students to groups of three or four and asked them to select nominees for “most useful” and “not so useful” sources and, as they were making those judgments, to list the criteria they were using. We then reconvened and discussed each group’s findings.  It was a simple exercise, but a vast improvement over my old lecture-version approach.

This activity has made me appreciate yet again our computer classrooms and how they enable more active learning experiences. Also, I’ve been considering what my other tech options would be for such a find-and-evaluate-sources activity. (I considered using Twitter, but abandoned it after a try-out in a faculty development workshop.) I’d be interested in hearing from readers what other ways, both high- and low-tech, that you’ve used to help students understand this part of the research process.

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Categories: Holly Pappas
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